I am going to document this swiftly before the whole horror fades under the sweet joyous glow of sugar and carbohydrates. Besides the first few years of this illness, which has its own special place in the Hell Hall of Fame, the last few days preparing and preforming the SIBO test might have been the worst 50 hours of my life. There are 2 close seconds: the aftermath of a lumbar puncture, which gave me the 10 on my pain scale to which I compare all else, and a particularly harrowing bout of food poisoning, which I suffered alone on my brother’s bathroom floor for a few days, thinking I might die. But this weekend was worse than both. But let me back up.
My symptoms have been bad since coming back from California, particularly the last month. Immediately after our return, I had to contend with my period, which heightens everything a notch, including emotions. My husband went straight back to work 7 days a week to catch up with his landscaping jobs and the renewed isolation, plus being trapped indoors because of the chilly, damp weather began to take their toll very quickly.
A week after getting back to Seattle, I got the tests done for Dr. Kaufman (the California doctor at the Open Medicine Clinic). I had 39 vials of blood taken in 2 days — the first day, we did 9 vials, but my blood sugar crashed, so the second day we went back downtown and I did the other 29 vials. I completely underestimated the toll it would take. That evening my blood pressure tanked and I didn’t feel good. It took a few days for the effects to wear off. Just in time for family to come over for my birthday brunch, which caused a bad (but short-lived) crash (I already wrote about this last month).
Two days after that, I started to get a throat thing… one of those feelings that, in my old life, would have made me think I was getting sick. The last time I was sick — normally sick with a cold and bronchitis — was almost exactly 6 years ago. That boggles my mind. It is, of course, because I probably have immune activation, but it is maybe even more about being housebound, wearing my mask when I go to appointments in the winter and not letting sick people come into my house. So for 3 days I felt like I had strep throat, was completely couch-bound, stiff, sore, swollen and had a tight chest just like it used to feel before I got a chest infection. For 2 nights I slept over 8 hours, which should tell you right away I was being beat down by something different because I’m lucky to ever get more than 6 or 7 hours sleep. These symptoms of acute sick on top of chronic sick scared me. I have read so many stories of relapses and crashes caused by a common cold. I haven’t had any lung issues since the first year of this illness and, as a previous asthma/bronchitis/pneumonia sufferer, I am incredibly thankful that I don’t contend with those symptoms. So, I hit it with every tool in my virus tool kit, including IV fluids (so brilliant to be able to hook myself up to fluids; see my first time here) and it didn’t progress to a full-blown cold or flu.
The day I started to feel better, I did an immunoglobulin infusion. From that day on, I’ve had a headache. It has waxed and waned over the last 3 weeks, but yesterday it was in the top 4 worst headaches of my life. More on that in a minute. I’m not finished with the litany. A few days after the infusion, I stopped taking all of my vitamins, supplements and even prescriptions that aren’t essential. I needed to come off my candida treatment for 2 weeks before doing the SIBO test, so I just stopped everything. I thought this would be a good break, but in retrospect, perhaps it contributed to this past Very Bad Fortnight.
One thing I did not intend to discontinue was my hormone therapy but my doctor refused to call in my compounded progesterone prescription because I hadn’t seen her in person in 4 months, so I had to abruptly stop it in the middle of my cycle. Maybe it’s no big deal, but I’ve been taking it for years and it regulates my periods and calms my reactivity, so messing with my body and, more importantly, the difficulty dealing with my doctor caused a lot of stress (I didn’t want to see her until I had the test results back from the 39 vials of blood, so I implored her to extend my Rx, but it took her too long to answer and my period decided to come and then she only called in a few to tide me over until our appointment, but they wanted to charge me $2.50/capsule for such a small order, so I just went to see her (there was no discussion of my hormones and no changes made, so withholding the refill felt like blackmail to get a very sick person to make an appointment). Then it took 3 more days after our appointment for her to call the progesterone into the pharmacy… so I was ultimately off of it for 2 weeks. Sigh).
Speaking of my pain scale, the week before last I had a bowel spasm that was a 9. My first 9 since The Evil Calcium Headache of 2012. I have experienced a lot of bowel issues in my life — just the day before this spasm, I had experienced such vicious heart palpitations during an enema, that I thought I might collapse with vasovagal syncope — but I didn’t know this sort of pain was possible in the bowel. From an internal muscle spasm?? Seems far-fetched even now, having experienced it. It only lasted about 5 minutes, but for that eternity I couldn’t move from the bathroom floor where I had crumpled, I could barely breathe, I was making some weird, uncontrollable, primal, guttural, airless moan. If it had gone on a few minutes longer, I would have called an ambulance and probably would have agreed to morphine, even though I’m allergic to it. As soon as I was able to crawl, I did a castor oil pack and heating pad and the spasm eased up. The aftershocks and inflammation continued for days, however…
Right up until my period came and my chronic headache became a chronic migraine. The old kind that has me wincing at every noise and squinting at every light. The kind of headache that makes it difficult to move my eyes, like the extraocular muscles have swelled taught with inflammation. The kind that infects my neck and spine, so I can’t turn my head, bend over, cough, sneeze or poop without whimpering in pain. The kind that causes nightmares about loved ones getting their skulls bashed in and destroys sleep with constant throbbing wakings. The kind that causes my stomach to flip with every smell and my poor husband: “Please don’t put your foot down so heavily on the floor.” “Please don’t ever use that shaving cream again.” “Please don’t sharpen that knife or stir that pot.” “Please don’t smoke that cigar out on the porch because it sticks to your clothes.” … etc. I became very weak over the next few days, like the life-force was drained out of me. Muscles not working, hard to converse. This is a completely different feeling from my typical exhaustion or heavy muscles. This is how I imagine it feels if someone is on the ground, bleeding out.
And then, just like that, a depression switch was flicked in my brain. I’ve only been really depressed twice before, the worst was the winter of 2013 after I’d gone steadily downhill for 2 years and spent most of my time in my bedroom in pain. This episode wasn’t as bad as that — I am sustained by a bit more hope these days because I’ve had some staccato ups punctuate the continuous downs — but it still sucked. I’ve cried every day and had very black thoughts. The relentlessness of my symptoms have highlighted the improvements in California, making me terrified of what it means for our lives if my environment is keeping me sick. And the interesting/engulfing thing about depression is, it doesn’t matter whether you rationally know that things will be better on a different day or could be better in a different location, you still want to give up and end it all. Nope, can’t do this anymore, I’m too tired. And when that Black Cloud of Despondency starts to dissipate, like it has today (oh, thank god, please stay away), it seems ludicrous and selfish that you had those dark thoughts.
But let’s get to the crescendo… The last 50 hours… The prep for the SIBO test… If I was ever in doubt that my body doesn’t do well on a low-carb diet, this weekend proved it. It feels miraculous that I’m able to sit up and type right now, honestly. On top of bad physical symptoms, little sleep, no supplements and sadness, I started a 48-hour prep diet for a SIBO test ordered by Dr. Kaufman. SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. I’ve done the SIBO diet and test once before and don’t remember it being very difficult (aside: my post is here and you can see that the National University of Natural Medicine has stolen my food photo for their website here, which I find highly amusing). For the prep diet, you are only allowed to eat meat, eggs, white rice and fats for 12 hours and then 15 hours of fasting, which doesn’t sound too bad except, if you are constipated (or in my case, the most constipated person I’ve ever met), you have to do the diet for 2 days before the fast. I eat all day and night — it steadies my blood sugar and maintains my weight — and, although I eat meat every day, I don’t eat a lot and I only eat about 2 or 3 eggs a week. So, this was hard. Friday night, I stopped eating at 1am. I was hoping I would wake up Tuesday morning without an appetite, which often happens in the mornings, but no luck, I was starving. I ate a scrambled egg with turkey. A little later I ate some rice and butter. Then chicken breasts. By the time my husband made some “meat broth” (no bones, cartilage, herbs or veg allowed), I was very nauseous — which is unusual, I have an iron stomach — but still hungry because I couldn’t physically choke down enough meat to fill me up and too much white rice without sufficient veg and starchy carbs causes my blood sugar to crash because of reactive hypoglycemia. The nausea was exacerbated by pain throughout my body, a pulled muscle in my back and my migraine ratcheting up. If I hadn’t prepared for this test for 2 weeks already, I would have thrown in the towel and taken steroids, acetaminophen and an antihistamine, but I had to shudder through it.
Yesterday was indescribable (but I’ll try). I woke up with my brain swollen, neck stiff and head shattered. It felt like that lumbar puncture headache: I had to be horizontal to function. And, of course, I was starving. The smell of the meat broth almost made me vomit. My arms shook as I force-fed myself an egg and turkey. Later, I ate beef stew meat and rice, but, again, not enough to fill me. I just couldn’t get it down. I spent the whole day in a weak ball on the couch. My husband had to half carry me to the loo because whenever I sat up, my limbs started shaking and I broke out in sweats. This was more than hunger on top of a migraine. I googled meningitis and encephalitis symptoms and actually considered going to the hospital. I’ve managed to stay out of the emergency room for the entirety of my illness, so I don’t consider it lightly. But, really, what could they do? IV fluids, which I can do at home; a spinal tap, which I’ll refuse; a brain CT, but I’ve had way too much radiation exposure in my life; an MRI, but I’ll refuse contrast; a blood test, which will be negative. So I stayed put. And, besides, I checked my blood sugar, blood pressure and temperature and, inexplicably, everything was stable. Actually, this made me a little more scared because I like having a reason for abnormal symptoms — something I can fix. The entire day, I kept saying to myself, “You’ve come this far, just 20 more hours… 15 more hours…” I couldn’t stomach anything after 6pm and I finally got to sleep at midnight, but woke up at 3:30am and 4am and then every hour, feeling sick and in and out of dreams about food. I got up at 7am and my head felt a bit better, but I was so emaciated and weak (I lost 3 pounds in those 2 days and I didn’t have 3 pounds to lose).
For the SIBO test, at least an hour after you wake up, you drink a lactulose solution and then take a sample of your breath every 20 minutes for 3 hours. Only 4 more hours. My kingdom for peanut butter on toast! It was torture. I was breathless and, with every movement, my heart rate skyrocketed. I’m not sure why I have to eat so much, so often, of so many foods in order to feel like my muscles and organs — even my cells — will function. It could be thyroid related: my metabolism is still revving too high. But then the icing on the cake … No, the cherry on top of the icing… The pièce de résistance of the whole month de hell: An hour after drinking the lactulose solution, my body responded how it always does to a shot of sugar without a meal chaser: my blood sugar crashed. No, no, no… We are in the 11th hour, I have been off supplements, I have gotten through the prep diet, please, body, do not fail me before I complete the test. I sat very still, tried not to expend energy, willed my pancreas and liver to do their jobs and release some glucose, but the shakes and my hammering heart… It was too much. I thought I might black out getting the phone to call my husband, my words were halting and stuttered, my vision tunneled as I tested my blood sugar. It was 57 and I was getting worse, I had no choice but to drink some apple juice. After only 3 ounces, I could feel my body stabilise. It was like those starving Naked & Afraid people who feel energy flood back into their bodies after eating a minnow (if you don’t watch that program, what are you waiting for?). I’d last about 3 hours on Naked & Afraid.
An hour and a half after the hypoglycemic crash, I got diarrhea. For someone who hasn’t moved her bowels in over 2 years without an enema, this is a big deal — body’s in trouble. I finished the SIBO test and wrote a note that I had to drink apple juice and all I can do is pray that they can glean something from my samples. As soon as I blew my last breath sample, I drank a huge mug of proper Irish tea with milk and ate a piece of banana bread. I moaned with every sip and bite. Potable, edible life. Then I ate a seed bar, some nuts, some melon. And then half an acorn squash and half a head of steamed cabbage. And an oatmeal raisin cookie. Now I’m sitting at the table for the first time in about 10 days feeling very grateful for no shakes, my normal-level pain, the food in my belly and the energy available to write this. I don’t even care that my churning, bloated, gassy bowel probably means I have SIBO and will have to take antibiotics. All I know is I will never do this test again.
After 13 months of buildup, I’m finally scheduled for my first IgG infusion. Dr. Chia recommended I get IVIG (intravenous immunoglobulin) in August, 2014. When I came back to Seattle, I asked my GP about it and she said my total IgG wasn’t low enough (allopathic guidelines say total IgG < 400mg/dL) to warrant therapy. I asked my rheumatologist about it and he said because I have no evidence of persistent infections, I’d have to get an antibody vaccine provocation. I’m sure there’s a name for this, but, essentially, you are given a vaccine and then they look for an appropriate rise in antibody titers to that vaccine. If your body doesn’t mount a response, they can approve IVIG. Well, of course, I’m never getting a vaccination again, so that’s out of the question. I asked my main ND, Dr. W, and she said she didn’t have the ability to order it, but suggested oral IgG, which I never started because… another supplement, ugh. So, I’d given up on it when I went to a new ND, Dr. I, and I didn’t even think to mention it. After reviewing all my labs, the first thing she recommended was IVIG and, just like that, she got it approved. But… not so fast. That was 10 months ago and there was a lot of work to be done.
(As an aside, I do wonder if I’ve had low immunoglobulins my whole life and nobody looked into it. Or maybe it waxed and waned. I had chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma as a child and, as an adult, got a chest infection pretty much once a year–probably more when I was smoking–but never thought this was unusual. Here’s a short article about one girl’s SCIG from infancy. It has some photos of infusions.)
Before trying IVIG, we decided I should try SCIG (sub-cutaneous IgG) because there are fewer side effects for most people. Before SCIG, I needed to test out the medications necessary to stave off anaphylaxis, aseptic meningitis, migraines and a host of other issues that can develop. Before testing the pre-meds, I had to make sure I could handle IV saline infusions since the last one I had caused a leaky anaphylactoid reaction. Before trying IV fluids, she wanted me to be on bioidentical progesterone, pregnenolone and DHEA, not only because my hormones are low, but also because there is evidence that hormone therapy can calm reactivity. And all of this has to be danced around my menstrual cycle because I’m somewhat reactive during ovulation and extremely reactive during my period. We also had to wait for me to get my nerve up because so much of this is dependent on my comfort level and, when anaphylaxis could be involved, I’m never comfortable.
I have friends in mast cell groups who “anaphylax” often, repeatedly, sometimes daily. I can’t imagine this. There are different levels of anaphylaxis, so I suppose these could be lower level reactions, but my episodes of anaphylaxis were full-blown and very scary, mostly because of the difficulty breathing. I really thought I would die and I probably have some PTSD from those experiences. No amount of sickness scares me as much as having a sudden anaphylactic reaction that kills me. I don’t want to get meningitis or be saddled with chronic migraines like my friend Jackie, but those are not at the top of my list of fears.
Having said that, I pay attention to comments like this since I, too, once had a CSF leak from a lumbar puncture and it was the 10 on my pain scale to which I now compare everything else. IVIG can mess you up:
(FYI, I found this website with tons of allergy information and graphics that might be interesting.)
So, I’ve been on topical, compounded hormones for almost a year and they haven’t raised my serum levels much, but I think they’ve helped with sleep (they also cause greasy skin and hair, like I’m going through puberty, but I’m willing to put up with that). At the beginning of this year, I was reeling from the terrible nocturnal reactions and tongue swelling I had been having, so I wasn’t willing to try anything new. Finally, in May, I got around to testing a tiny bag of IV saline (it went fine, although the whole appointment and clinic visit was a total shitshow which lead me to write two long emails to my doctor. I came very close to not going back, but I really want this treatment). Then in July, I had a full liter infused over 6 hours (a very long time for 2 bags of saline). Everything went fine, no problems (but no boost in blood pressure or energy, either), which meant it was time to schedule SCIG, but, once I started researching in earnest, I realised that there were so many questions I needed answered.
IVIG is often done in a hospital setting if the person is high-risk. I would prefer to have more than just a nurse present if I went into shock (and, by all accounts, nurses’ competency levels are highly variable). My doctor didn’t know how to get this done because the company with which she works does home infusions; she recommended I ask one of my MDs for help. More time ticked by while I emailed my GP (who has only met me once), my endocrinologist and my rheumatologist (both of whom have only met me a few times) for help with this. They all said no. I talked to the infusion company (who have been incredibly helpful thus far) and they offered to do it in their “infusion suite”, but there are no doctors present and their protocol is to call 911 if there is an emergency. Well, I live a few minutes from a fire house and an emergency room, so home seems just as safe as the infusion suite, if not more so since my husband, who is far-too-intimately acquainted with my history, can be there.
Scrolling through Facebook groups, I realise I have to learn how many injection sites I’ll have and whether to use my belly or thighs and the needle size and how many ml you can put in any one area and leakage, hardness, weals etc. etc. My good friend, who is braving his way through gruelling IVIG treatment, has been giving me advice every step of the way, which is invaluable when your doctor doesn’t tell you exactly what the process is or the importance of hydrating or the effects of IgA.
Different brands of IgG have varying amounts of IgA in them. In general, lower IgA equals fewer reactions and, if blood tests show that you have very low IgA or anti-IgA antibodies, you will qualify for the IgA-depleted IgG brands. Isn’t this something my doctor should have mentioned? She wrote the prescription for Gamunex and I asked her if she would consider Gammagard or Hyqvia, both of which have lower IgA. but she said it wasn’t necessary. And she may be right, but wouldn’t you want to use every tool available to keep your highly-reactive patient as safe as possible? My IgA has been slightly low in the past, so, right before I was meant to schedule my first infusion, I asked my doctor, “Can you test me to see if I have anti-IgA antibodies?” and she said yes. Doesn’t this seem like something that should have been done originally without my asking, considering my history?? Maddening.
The IgA test was meant to take a week to come back and I didn’t get the results for 3 weeks, so here we are in September. One of the IgA subclasses was low out of range, but I didn’t have anti-IgA antibodies, so I couldn’t really make a case for changing from Gamunex. And I wanted to do it as soon as possible rather than wait until after my next period, which would put us in October, so I scheduled it for this coming Tuesday.
My doctor wants me to take 2 Tylenol (Paracetamol), 2 Benadryl and 3mg of Prednisone (Prednisolone) before my treatment. I needed to test these premeds because last year when I took Prednisone, I worked up very slowly to 3mg, I only ever take 1 Tylenol at a time and I have been VERY sensitive to Benadryl since having M.E.–plus I’ve never taken the combo. I realised my EpiPens were expired and so were my two boxes of Benadryl and my emergency Prednisone. It took more waiting time for new prescriptions to be called in and finding a good day for my husband to pick them up. When he did, I realised they had given me 10mg pills of Prednisone rather than 1mg (always carefully inspect your pills!) and he had to go back to the pharmacy for a fourth time in a week. Poor guy.
Last week I tried 1 Tylenol, 1 Benadryl and 1.5mg of Prednisone (using my expired stash). About half an hour later, I got a tight chest. Not enough to scare me, but enough to put me off trying more Benadryl. Then I got very shaky and drowsy and had low blood pressure. After I slept for about an hour, I was incredibly thirsty and hungry and then, about 4 hours after taking them, I felt better than I have in a while and was chatty and good-humoured. Success.
Last night I tried again, this time with 2 Tylenol, 1 Benadryl and 3mg of (fresh) Prednisone. I couldn’t bring myself to take 2 Benadryl. The good news is, I didn’t get the tight chest and shakes this time, I just fell asleep for an hour. The bad news is, I didn’t feel good afterwards at all. I had a headache, my eyes and lips felt swollen, I was completely parched and felt really out of it and hungover. But, this is HUGE for me. It is so incredibly exciting to take a bunch of medications and come out unscathed. I’ve been wanting to test this for ages so I have some confidence that, if I’m given IV Benadryl and/or steroids in the event of an emergency, I’ll be okay.
A few final hurdles: I’m scrambling to get two blood draws on Monday before starting SCIG. Dr. W has been trying to get me to do regular “hydrotherapy” for a year and a half. It’s basically hot and cold towels over my torso and back, coupled with electrical stimulation (instructions for doing it at home can be found here). I never wanted to expend the energy until she told me about a patient of hers with hypogammaglobulinemia whose IgG levels came into the normal range after 6 weeks of hydro constitutionals. She was willing to test my total IgG before and after if I did this experiment. I love quantifiable evidence! So I started in August and, even though it’s only been 5 weeks, I want to get my levels tested again before starting SCIG.
The second thing is a babesia test. I’ve been asking my ND about this since June–in person during appointments, in email to her and also to her assistant, who keeps saying she has to get the doctor to sign the form–and can’t seem to get anywhere. They say yes, but it never happens. How hard could it be to sign a requisition form?? Her last message to me said I could get my blood drawn if I make another follow-up appointment. Are you kidding me? That seems downright cruel when we’ve discussed this at my last 3 appointments and she only works two days a week. I talked to the director of Igenex, the lab that does the testing, and he said I should definitely get it done before SCIG, so I finally just ordered the test kit myself and I’m going to bring it to my other doctor, Dr. W, on Monday and beg her to do the blood draw along with the total IgG. I don’t understand why everything has to be such a battle. It’s exhausting and infuriating.
I’m trying to not be annoyed at the difficult communication with my SCIG doctor because, not only is she the only one getting me this treatment, but she was willing to start me at 1 gram the first week (unheard of), building up to 5 grams over 5 weeks. She was also willing to prescribe saline infusions along with the treatment. Only 500ml each time, but every little bit of hydration helps mitigate side effects. I’m deeply grateful to have someone willing to do that when an immunologist wouldn’t even have a conversation about it.
Wish me luck. I’m going to receive all the supplies by courier on Monday and then Tuesday afternoon a nurse will come over, start the drip and show me how to do the sub-cutaneous injections. I believe after that, I’m on my own. Or, maybe because I’m getting IV fluids each week, a nurse will have to come, I don’t know. I will take Zyrtec and hydrate like mad the days before and after… But, friends and family, I am very scared. Even though it’s SCIG and not IVIG and even though I’m starting at a laughably low dose, I’m still scared. I will eat fairly low-histamine in the next few days and do my breathing exercises and meditations before, during and after treatment, but still… I want this to be the beginning not the end. Are my affairs in order? Do you all know how much I love you? Remember: when I first got sick and thought I was dying, I wrote down directives and requests. Husband, remember: the notebook in my bedside table.
Now everyone knock on wood for me and spit over your shoulders. Toba toba.
So, the MD that my husband and I have seen since 2007 has left her practice abruptly and I’m quite sad because we had a great relationship and mutual respect. She trusted me and would run tests that I requested if I had good reasons. She also knew me before I was sick and that was very important to me. She knew me when I was bouncing off the walls with energy and happy. She saw me a week before ME hit for a check up and I told her my only problem was sore muscles which I attributed to sitting at a desk after so many years walking the floors of restaurants. She witnessed the abrupt change in my abilities when all the other doctors I’ve seen have nothing to compare my current level of health to.
Now my two doctors are naturopaths: Dr. Erin and Dr. Kim. I had follow-ups with both of them in the last 10 days. Dr. Erin has put me on 25 mg of DHEA and progesterone. They’re topical, compounded only with coconut oil, nothing else. She’s hoping these will feed down both pathways to raise all the other hormones that are low.
And by “pathways”, I mean, instead of giving me just Pregnenolone (at the top of the “map”) and letting my body do with it what it wants, the DHEA and progesterone insure that (in theory) I’m feeding all branches of hormone production:
My thyroid hormones continue to be low, even though I almost doubled my dose a few months ago, so I’m changing to compounded T3 and T4. Dr. Erin doesn’t want me to try NDT (natural desiccated thyroid from pigs) because I’m so reactive right now, but she’s hoping compounded meds without the crappy gluten- and dairy-derived fillers will help me absorb the hormones better. I’m really nervous about the change because I’ve taken the same generic pills every morning for 6 years — well before I got sick.
My salivary cortisol test showed high levels throughout the whole day, especially at night. However, Dr. Erin said she thought functionally I was still low, her theory being that my body is compensating for something and that cortisol is either being converted to a less active form or receptors are down-regulated, which results in my body needing to produce more to get the same results. She also wants me to start humic acid (for chronic infections) and a homeopathic lotion to rub into my sternum which can supposedly desensitise my body and help reactivity. Not sure how much faith I have in homeopathy, but there’s no harm in it, other than the cost. I’ve also been told to start daily “hydrotherapy” (basically, hot and cold towels to boost immune function) and oiling my body to absorb additional fat (some serious old wives’ shit going on here).
Dr. Kim ran a bunch of blood tests. The good news is my CBC, metabolic panel, folate, iron and vitamin D are all within normal range (the latter two I would like to be higher). The bad news is, total immunoglobulin and all 4 subclasses are even lower than they were when Dr. Chia tested them. I also had high levels of Mycoplasma Pneumoniae IgG, HHV6 IgG (which I already knew) and she said I was “dripping in EBV.” Gross.
The final blow was candida is high. Those who know me, know I have dreaded the day I was tested for candida and purposely didn’t bring it up with the last 30 doctors because I don’t want to face my sugar addiction. Dr. Kim isn’t insisting I go on a strict no-sugar diet, god love her, because I think she recognises my need for the joy it provides and, really, I try to be responsible — a bit of dark chocolate, ice cream, some honey, jam, fruit, dates… It’s not like the good ol’ days where I could eat a Dairy Queen Blizzard or a whole purple Yorkie without thinking twice. She is putting me on a prescription anti-fungal, Nystatin, a pulsed dose — 4 days on, 3 days off.
I am waiting to hear from insurance about sub-cutaneous IgG (because I’m too scared to start with IVIG) and, in the meantime, I am starting to supplement copper, low dose B-complex, additional B6 and B1, increasing Thorne Trace Minerals to twice a day and magnesium glycinate to 4 times a day, as well as homemade electrolyte water all day long.
I’m hoping and praying that I will feel like a different person once my hormones and thyroid are balanced. Then my blood pressure will come up and my brain will work better, headaches will dissipate, my immune system will be able to suppress the infections, sleep will get better, reactions will fade, fatigue will lift and we’ll all live happily ever after!!
This illness takes away every bit of independence and control. My day today was ludicrous and stressful. In my mind, it is filmed in high-speed to the Benny Hill Show music.
I made three back-to-back appointments (ophthalmologist, therapy and blood draw), which is obviously foolhardy, but, if my husband is going to come home to ferry me around, I want to maximise the time. However, I didn’t want the day to be longer than it needed to be because it takes such a toll on me, so I tried to schedule the appointments as close together as possible. The ophthalmologist’s office assured me 3 separate times (because I rescheduled 3 times and asked each time) that a 2:20pm appointment would have me out by 3pm because the doctor is exceedingly timely and expeditious. I google mapped the distances between clinics and called LabCorp to ask about parking and the name of the building and what floor they were on so I was completely prepared and wouldn’t be wasting time wandering.
But, first on the schedule this morning, our cleaning lady (a luxury we obviously can’t afford, but we decided we needed once in a while to alleviate the burden on my husband) was meant to arrive at 9am. That’s very early for me, so I had scheduled the day yesterday to do nothing but organise the house in short bursts (because you actually have to tidy the house for the cleaning lady): putting away clothes and paperwork, moving blankets, yoga mats and dog beds etc. with rests in between. It takes an extraordinary amount of energy for me to do this, mainly because it involves walking things from one room to the next and up and down stairs.
Our cleaning lady is scared of the dogs, so I locked them in my bedroom with me this morning and listened to them whine to get out for an hour and a half before I texted her. I got no answer until noon, when she said she would be here at 1:30pm. She wasn’t. And my husband wasn’t home by 2 to take me to my appointments, so I stood by the door, having eaten, showered, dressed and meditated, holding my handbag, unsure of what to do. He arrived shortly after, not too late, just late enough that I was anxious. We got the dogs’ leashes on (because we had to take them with us because we couldn’t leave them home with the cleaning lady) and I hid the key for her so she could get in while we were gone.
We drove like a bat out of hell, but traffic was worse than normal. Not terrible, just bad enough to make me anxious. I got there on time, but I was still sitting in the waiting room 35 minutes later, so I had to reschedule. They said I could come back after therapy at 4pm, but the blood draw was at 4:15, so I had to reschedule that, too– to 5pm, their latest slot.
On the short drive to the therapist’s office, I was starving, as usual, so I quickly ate an apple and a bunch of plantain chips. Then I had to stand in line at reception for a full 10 minutes (exhausting) and then sat in the waiting room for another 10 minutes, wishing I had taken my time eating rather than inhaling without chewing. By the time my therapist came to get me, it was 3:15pm — not too late, just late enough to make me anxious about the appointment going over time and thus causing me to be late for my rescheduled ophthalmology visit.
I was close to tears from watching the time tick by, the stress of the day, rushing around, not being able to drive myself, being let down by cleaning lady, husband, receptionist, late doctor #1 and #2, having to schedule these appointments in the first place, having to schedule them close together because I can’t handle long outings, having to reschedule 2 out of 3 of them, trusting the ophthalmologist clinic that said 40 minutes would be enough time when I know better… so, I spent 3/4 of my therapy session ranting about the day and how frustrating it is to have no independence… and then ranting about how the day’s events were impinging on my precious therapy time! I have shrinking to do, dammit.
Of course, therapy ran late, so we drove like a bat out of hell again to the ophthalmologist, got there at 4:10 aaannnd… at 4:50pm, I was still waiting in the waiting room. Of course. So I had to call the lab and completely cancel the blood draw. What a farce!
The good news is, the different pressures in my eyes seem to have resolved, so I’m no longer considered a glaucoma suspect. The doctor wants me to try Restasis for the next 6+ months, plus steroid eye drops to address the ongoing dry eye/blepharitis/lid muscle spasms/styes/grittiness/goopiness/floaters/blury vision. Yay, more prescriptions and protocols!
Through all of this, my long-suffering husband and dogs waited in the car, but, the other good news is, he took them to the park while I was in therapy and we got to come home to a beautiful, clean home.
And then I got to do this:
Aaaahhhhh…. take me away…. 🙂
Tomorrow is International M.E. Awareness Day. Everyone should read this post by Mary Schweitzer on her blog, Slightly Alive. It is informative and moving and should light a fire in everyone’s souls to raise awareness and find justice for so many patients and their family members who suffer from this disease.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
May 12: My 20 years with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis
I have had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or M.E, for 20 years. The CDC does not recognize this. They insist that I have a condition called “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” or CFS. I have M.E.
At the age of 44 I led a charmed life. I had been married to the love of my life for 20 years, and we had two lovely children. We were both college professors – a deliberate choice that allowed us to do what we enjoyed – researching and teaching subjects that deeply interested us – while having the income to live comfortably (because we both worked) and plenty of time to spend with the children (because of the nature of academic life). I had tenure at a good university, although my sights were set higher than that. I had a working relationship as an associate fellow with a research institute at an Ivy League school, which enabled me the luxury of being around the best and the brightest in my field. We traveled all around the country going to each other’s conferences, often taking one of the kids along. We also went to four Olympics, two final fours (NCAA basketball championships) and countless playoff games, several World Series, and, eventually, twenty years of baseball AllStar games. We skied in the winter and went to the beach in the summer. It was a charmed life.
On October 24, 1994, I went to my office to grade exams and suffered a blackout. When I came to, I could not understand one word in the Bluebooks in my lap – they might as well have been written in Cyrillic alphabet. It took time – and concentration – to be able to stand. I had fallen down the rabbit hole; my life would never be the same.
Over the next four years I suffered from severe pain in the back of my neck and behind my eyes, 24/7. My muscles ached, and I had migraine-level headaches. I had ataxia, dyslexia, sensitivity to light and sound (to the point I had to wear sunglasses all the time), tinnitus, partial paralysis, memory loss, disorientation, expressive dysphasia, and massive confusion. My family took care of me. Obviously, I could not drive, and by 1996 I was using a wheelchair when I left the house (which someone else had to push).
I was lucky to have a family to take care of me, because I could not take care of myself. I also soon discovered an Internet discussion list of fellow sufferers, and was referred to a very good specialist in Washington, Marsha Wallace (who unfortunately hasn’t practiced since 2000). Dr. Wallace taught me to live within my energy envelope and helped with sleep disruption and NMH/POTS, but I continued to deteriorate.
In the fall of 1998, Dr. Wallace introduced me to Dharam Ablashi, a researcher who had just retired from the National Cancer Institute at NIH. Dr. Ablashi had been the co-discoverer of HHV-6 and it’s two variants, A and B, while working with AIDS. I had the version the AIDS patients did – Variant A – and my viral load was ten times the amount used to diagnose an active infection.
I would also test positive for active EBV or mono (which I had more than once – most notably in 1990, four years before my collapse, during an outbreak on my college campus), CMV (cytomegalovirus), HHV-7, and three strains of Coxsackie B.
My immune system was severely compromised: My natural killer cell function was less than 3%, I had the defective 37kDa Rnase-L, and I had an abnormal cytokine pattern. But no one knows how all this happened. All we know is that this disease can occur in cluster outbreaks, and it can pop up in individuals. No one in my family got it from me, but I believe the outbreak of EBV in 1990 marked the beginning of my illness – the beginning of the cycle of immune defect-virus-damage that characterizes this disease for many of us. I had to continue to teach through my infection with EBV, including an hour’s commute and back, and while I recovered from mono at the end of the fall semester, my health began to deteriorate in seemingly disparate ways, until the ultimate collapse in 1994.
Years later I would have a spinal tap that revealed both HHV-6 and Cytomegalovirus were active in my spinal fluid. No wonder I had the symptoms of encephalitis, and with the stiff neck, meningitis. Along with the muscle pain, that meant literally that I had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or M.E., a disease that had been diagnosed in the UK since the mid-1950s. In the United States, however, all I was given was a diagnosis of “chronic fatigue syndrome,” a name chosen by committee and adopted by CDC in 1988 to replace the name given a number of cluster outbreaks occurring in the USA at the time, Chronic EBV. They did not mention M.E. – though there were specialists at the meeting who insisted that was the correct diagnosis for these outbreaks. They did not ask anyone in the disease community what they thought of this name. They simply adopted it, and having done so, consigned the disease to the backwaters of medicine where neither research nor treatment could be found.
There could not have been a worse choice of a name for this disease if CDC had hired a focus group, Chronic (as in chronic whiner) Fatigue (as in “yeah, I’ve been feeling tired lately myself”) Syndrome (as in syndrome of the month) – applied to upper middle class white women “trying to have it all” (as the late Bill Reeves of CDC once phrased it) – how inconsequential, silly even. Twenty-five years later, 85% of patients – over one million Americans – have no idea what is wrong with them, because, according to both CDC and private demographic evidence, only 15% have a diagnosis. 25 years later only 15% have a diagnosis. That is a mighty admission of failure.
The infectious disease specialists in northern Delaware dismissed my illness as minor. “You’ll be back to normal in two years,” they assured me. Oh good, I responded – I won’t have to miss more than two seasons before I can go back to skiing. “Oh no,” was the response. “You’ll never ski again.” How was that “normal?” I asked. They got angry at that. That’s when I was referred to Dr. Wallace and, thankfully, only had to deal with these people once more, when I was on the antiviral Vistide for my cytomegalovirus infection. Dan Peterson, my new specialist, had asked them to let me get the infusions at their center, and they had agreed. But when I showed up at their office, one of the doctors took me aside and said that they could not let me have Vistide because my medical records showed I “only had CFS – nothing serious, like AIDS or cancer.” They said they could not justify using the drug on someone with a diagnosis of CFS – even though it was an FDA-approved drug for the virus CMV, which was active in both my blood serum and my spinal fluid.
Let me repeat that: once given the label Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I would meet disrespect from many doctors and people at NIH and CDC. None of my extensive testing mattered.
Although the progressive version of M.E. that I suffered from was unusually severe, I turned out to be lucky. I was given the opportunity to go on the experimental Phase III drug Ampligen, in what is called a cost-recovery (I pay cash), compassionate care (I am allowed to do this because I was so very sick), open label (I know I am on the drug so FDA ignores me) study. I have to get Ampligen at the study site by IV infusion twice a week. And FDA can take the drug away from me whenever they want.
I have been on Ampligen for eleven of the past fifteen years. Again, I am unusual in that my illness erupts again within a year of going off the drug (which I did once voluntarily, and once because FDA did take the drug away). FDA has admitted, in writing, that the drug is not toxic. But they are not “convinced” it is effective. My experiences do not count because I was not in a placebo trial; I knew I was on the drug. There is no other drug in the FDA pipeline for either CFS or M.E. (Although there are immune boosters and antivirals available for patients, and an anti-cancer drug called Rituximab is showing some promise). This is the only one expressly targeted to M.E. or CFS. Over one million Americans suffer from my disease. FDA, CDC, NIH – none of them cares – though in fairness, there are individuals within those agencies who do. It is those who make decisions who do not care.
[Side note about the obsession with placebo trials – If just knowing you are on a drug can make your immune markers return to normal, your active viruses return to a dormant stage, and change tests such as SPECT scans and CPET scores, we should all be cured of anything by happy thoughts. Does FDA really believe this?]
So here I am today. I would not have written this were I not on Ampligen. On Ampligen, I can drive, take care of myself (mostly), read a book, work on my own writing, spend time with my children and grandchildren. Off Ampligen I am an invalid in bed in severe pain, curled up in the dark because light is too painful, listening to a favorite movie over and over again.
So twice a week I leave my house at 8:15 and commute by train 100 miles north to Dr. Derek Enlander’s office in New York City, the closest site where I can get Ampligen. I usually get home around 7 pm. It is grueling, but at least I am getting the drug that keeps me from being a bedridden invalid.
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is a serious disease.
CDC betrayed us by giving it a silly-sounding name in 1988 – CFS. NIH allocates less than $5 per patient per year to study this disease – a pathetic amount. We came back with private research initiatives, funded by cash-strapped patients and their families, and more good biomedical research is being published than ever before. The whole concept of what “CFS” is, silly sounding name and all, is undergoing a transformation. And for the first time in my memory, clinicians and researchers have agreed on a definition – the Canadian Consensus Criteria, updated with current research.
So how is our government responding? Suddenly there are three different initiatives within the U.S. department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to redefine the disease and rename it – done behind closed doors. At CDC there is the Multi-site clinical assessment – which brought in respected clinics, but is now being polluted with research from a poorly conceived and run study by CDC in Georgia that used a different definition entirely. HHS has once again turned to the IOM – Institute of Open Medicine – with a committee of whom the majority are not experts in either CFS or M.E. IOM already weighed in with the opinion that both CFS and Gulf War Syndrome be renamed “Multi-Symptom Disorder,” provoking anger within the larger veteran community. And NIH as a whole has given the “problem” of the name and definition to their “pathways to prevention” program, or P2P. In this case a committee was explicitly created consisting of individuals with NO experience -either medical of personal – with the disease, “like the jury system,” a spokesman explained cheerfully. “Stakeholders” with different viewpoints testify to the committee, and then this committee of amateurs will recess and vote on the choice of what to do next. Precisely when did the jury system replace scientific method in determining medical policy?
They are going against the expressed wishes of 60 specialists who signed a letter asking that the U.S. adopt the Canadian Consensus Criteria (CCC), and the public members of the CFS Advisory Committee to HHS asking that the government adopt the CCC, and hold an open workshop of specialists to update it (it is ten years old) with current research results. Why are those of us within the world of M.E. ignored? Why is 60 years of biomedical research into M.E. ignored internationally?
Perhaps more important, why don’t people outside our community – people in the media, in government, our doctors, our neighbors, our employers – why don’t they know that there is a growing epidemic of a severe, life-altering and in some cases life-taking disease that CDC and NIH are keeping under wraps? I have friends who were teenagers when they got sick, and are now in their 40s. They did not get to marry their soulmate like I did. They did not go to college or have a career. They did not have children or grandchildren (I have two grandchildren now). I was lucky compared to them.
They can barely afford to live from day to day. They cannot afford the testing I have had, and they most certainly cannot afford the treatment I am on.
I have lost friends to this disease; we have lost young people to this disease. The viruses can get into your heart muscle; they can get into your liver. Patients die of rare cancers as well. And then there are the suicides.
There has been a new series of outbreaks in the past five years. Look at those you love, and if you care for them – whether or not you care about us – do something. Because they could be the next victims.
Thank you for reading.
This day last year, I said 2012 was the worst year of my life. I also stated emphatically that 2013 would look very different. And it did. But not in a good way. In 2012, I was still working for 5 months of the year. I got to spend 11 days with my soul sister, E., when she visited from Dublin. I was able to run errands, go to the dog park, talk on the phone, and see friends for 9 months of 2012. Unfortunately, that all went away. Now, I can safely say 2013 was the worst year of my life.
The details are too difficult and depressing to describe or dwell on, but neither will I paint a silver lining around this dark life. It has been unspeakably difficult, what didn’t kill me did not make me stronger, and I’m not grateful for the lessons I have learned since being sick. I am a sadder, scared-er, weaker, lonelier person and I’d give anything to go back to the ignorance and energy of healthier days.
However, I am much more aware of things I used to take for granted and I am more thankful than I’ve ever been: For every bird, tree, and arc of sunshine. For every single dollar that I saved before the abrupt halt of income. For every time a snort of laughter escapes me; every day that my legs hold me; and every book, film, song that distracts me. For every time someone vents to me about their life or asks for my opinion or feels they can use my muscle-wasted shoulder to cry on. For every time someone braves the thin ice of chronic illness to ask what life is like for us or see how I am feeling or offer to help, knowing full well they risk breaking through to the deep despair beneath.
Most of all, I am thankful for my family. My father, mother, brothers, sister, in-laws, friends, husband and dogs. (Oh, husband and dogs! I am alive today because of you! And I fight for tomorrow because of you.) Each day that they are healthy brings me solace and I experience stark, unfettered joy at every festive Facebook photo of holiday parties, restaurant dinners and energy-filled activities. So, keep singing, fishing, working, exercising and traveling, everyone! And I will live vicariously… Just, please, promise me that you do it with an eyes-wide-open acknowledgement of how short and fragile our journey is on this earth.
Here is my 2013 wrap up:
January: Was sorely disappointed at the Chronic Fatigue Clinic; saw first private doctor, tried cranio-sacral therapy.
February: Not much except stool and saliva tests.
March: Was sorely disappointed at second rheumatologist visit; saw second sleep doctor; had the 4 best days between September, 2012 and now; Zyrtec trial.
April: Got teeth cleaned; started seeing wonderful physical therapist; started the awful process of getting an oral appliance for sleep apnea which still hasn’t happened, almost 9 months later; Seriphos trial; started Chinese herbs.
May: New nephew R. was born; saw dermatologist; phophatidylserine trial; Nasonex trial; tried Tizanidine; turned 40; dear friend E.S. died far too young.
June: My mother and D. visited; saw cardiologist; tried valarian; started Unisom; Gabapentin trial; added rice back to my diet.
July: My father visited; stopped weekly therapy; stopped phone calls for the most part; stopped Chinese herbs.
August: Stopped eating soy, citrus; added lentils, garbanzo beans; tried Trazodone; stopped all vitamins and supplements; J. and Z. gave me a scooter: my ticket to some freedom.
September: My mother and brother, T. visited; abdominal pain started; husband’s family visited; celebrated 15th anniversary.
October: Brother A. visited; saw ENT doctor; saw “environmental” doctor; saw neurologist; had bad reaction to Unisom; tried Xanax; Zetonna trial; had hellish 2-week repercussions to autonomic testing.
November: Tried low-histamine diet for 5 weeks; methylation pathway, mycotoxin and adrenal tests; started vitamins again and Metagenics shakes; tried iv fluids and caused anaphylactoid reaction; another zyrtec trial; saw allergist; steps per day decreased below 700 and haven’t come back up.
December: New nephew G. was born; Christmas with sister; saw ophthalmologist; started juicing; tried Ativan.
Like last year, there were births, deaths, doctors, drugs, symptoms, setbacks and disappointments. And, like last year, what I see when I look at this is how lucky I am to have family that would travel across the city, country or ocean to visit me in my home and offer love and support, without judgement.
Happy new year to you all. 2014, please look different than 2013 ~ only in a good way.
Remember the little moments,
that were good.
~James Gandolfini in The Sopranos R.I.P.